Blood from her cuts drifted up into the water, diluting and vanishing. The salt stung the open flesh, but the pain was nothing. It was not comparable to what she felt in her heart everyday. The slave nymph with the sea-green eyes looked upward out of the depths. Her tears drifted away from her eyes, becoming part of the sea. She had been punished in the past for lingering on the surface when she was supposed to be tending to her mistress, but how could she keep herself away? He was there.
He was beautiful and strong. He was what she wanted. And even if he never looked her way again, just the sight of him would ease a bit of her pain.
She was suddenly overwhelmed with a need to be in the wind. There was no comfort for her here in the darkness. Her shining eyes lit the area in front of her, but not so well as if she had been born properly. Her tail maneuvered in the water and she moved upward toward the surface. Her speed was cut down because of her arms being bound, but she did not care. She would get there eventually – up to that world where her tears would be real.
The tropical sun was bright; the heat intense. Footprints in the sand overlapped themselves three times from only one pair of feet. The sand was scorching and the sun withdrew the hydration from his body, but Nathan saw no other choice for himself. On the beach of the island where he had been abandoned, he walked continually.
He'd left a pile of clothing – his shirt, his shoes, and what was left of his coat – and he'd started moving. By passing those objects that he had left behind, he knew he'd paced around the entire length of the island three times in the past five hours. He looked on in all directions as he moved, trying to spot a ship somewhere on the horizon. Tucked beneath his arm, he carried a few pieces of wood that might be used to start a fire as a signal. Two rocks in his pocket could be used to create a spark. In his other hand, he held the knife.
In five hours, he had seen nothing but waves.
He walked on, a young man with dark, wavy hair and sun-darkened skin. A wicked man with a large tattoo on the right side of his back – a woman with the wings of a bird. Her eyes were dark as blood splashed from her face. The Bloody Siren. It was a mark he had taken two years ago when he'd joined the pirate ship under Captain James Black, pledging his loyalty to both.
It was amusing actually. To live the most uninhibited life possible, he'd still had to bind himself. He'd been willing at the time, and he'd told himself that he did not regret it – only now it meant nothing. There was no more crew of the Bloody Siren. He was singular, detached, and left with nothing.
What was to happen to him? Would he die here? He'd thought about many different things as he'd done his walking. Thinking about death had made him reflect on his life – his childhood, the future that had once been promising, his mother – but that had all led him right back to where he was now, stuck on this island with limited resources that would not keep him alive many days. This led him to think of the young woman he had woken up beside on the sand.
No, not woman. Creature, he reminded himself.
He was fully convinced that she was the one who had put her arms around him and pulled him out of harm's way when the ship had wrecked, but why had she? The more he thought about her, the more he was doubtful that she had planned on killing him. He remembered the look in her eyes when he accused her. He remembered the sound of her voice as she apologized to him.
Had his rescue been genuine? Out of goodness? He shook his head, disturbing the fury of the knot he'd received from the ship's railing.
"No, Nathan," he scolded himself aloud. "She's not what you saw her to be. She's a monster."
He said it aloud as if it would convince him more easily. Her beauty and purity was an illusion. The more he thought of that, the angrier he became. How dare she be so wicked as to mock the goodness of a young virgin? How dare she intervene and bring him here to this place? Damn that nameless sea wench! And damn her lips for being so soft!
The hours of the morning faded on past noon and there was still no ship in sight. It was hot, and he was getting very tired of this endless trek. Perhaps it was time for rest.
The island was not completely rounded against the surface of the sea. The beach touched on all sides, but around the bend from where he was now, there was a slope and a cliff. There were many rocks out in the water there, and beneath that cliff, the cool breeze from the sea was enhanced. The simple thought of it made him want to sit down, but there was still a short distance to go. The short stretch of beach beneath that cliff would be an ideal place to rest.
As he went on toward his destination, he wondered what would keep him alive here if he had to stay for any extended length of time. He could dine on fish and land crabs – if he could catch either – and coconut milk would be enough to let him survive, though he couldn't say it was very refreshing. Perhaps tomorrow he might need to invest some time in exploring the island. Possibly, he might find a spring or some way to purify the water…
His thoughts stopped as he came around toward the cliff. So did his feet. He almost laughed in disbelief and annoyance as he looked out toward the area that was his intention. He was not alone here.
Amongst the rocks, sitting up over the water, was his attractive fish friend. Her back was to him as she looked out toward the open sea, but he recognized her immediately.
Anger flared stronger within him at her sight. He was in no mood to deal with her. He only wanted to rest. It was torture that this demon would haunt him so continually! There must have been a way to drive her away.
Or perhaps if I can get close enough, I won't have to worry about it any longer.
Nathan felt the knife in his fist, knowing it would do well to pierce her flesh. She was a bit off the shore, but still in the shallows. He was certain that he could get to her, though he wasn't sure if he could get to her position without her noticing and disappearing into the waves. He decided that it was worth the chance just to be free of her.
The young man stepped down into the water, trying not to make more noise than the waves themselves. He noticed that she did not stir much as she sat there, though he could see the end of her shining green tail moving slowly about in the clear water. As he moved on closer to his target, he began to realize that she did not look quite like she should have. Only a few strands of her long hair were blowing in the breeze. The rest was bound by something, and in fact, it was bound to her body by something – tangled. He moved closer still, confusion beginning to show in his eyes. There was something wrapped around her upper body, all across her shoulders and arms, fully down her torso. Closer. Her hands were bound behind her back. There was blood on her skin.
Not watching the shift of the sea floor beneath him, his foot slipped into a small hole and he stumbled, disturbing the water. The splash caught the mermaid's attention.
Nathan watched her turn to look at him, but before she looked directly at him, she cringed and jerked her head back away. A light whimper of pain reached his ears, carried back to him with the wind. What was that device on her? Obviously, it was causing her pain. Had she gotten herself tangled in some fisherman's net? No, this was something else.
He knew he should not have been concerned with her misfortune. He knew he should have kept moving toward her with the knife and separated the human part of her from the fish. But he could not. His conscience did not always keep him from doing ghastly things he was unsure about, but coupled with curiosity, his plans were normally thrown off. Nathan tucked the knife into the side of his pants.
When he emerged in her side vision, the mermaid creature made a motion as if she would throw herself from the rock and back into the water, but she stopped shortly through it, stuck in pain.
"I won't hurt you," he promised, standing a few feet from her in the water up to his waist. He'd made that promise, but he was not sure how long it would hold. That would depend on her actions.
She hesitated and glanced back at him, but did not retreat. Without moving closer, he examined her once again.
The blood on her skin was fresh, still oozing, and now he saw the source. Within this netting that she was wrapped in, tiny, rusted hooks were embedded, ripping into her flesh. This was not something that she had become tangled in. Looking at it now, it was apparent that someone had bound her arms and placed it upon her like clothing. Her head was tilted slightly to the side because of her hair being tangled in the net and hooks. The lovely eyes that looked at him were red and wet with tears.
Having seen this closely, Nathan elected to be satisfied and leave her there. What was she to him?
Walk away, he coaxed himself. Be free of her.
He could not move. He knew the weight of his actions. If he left her here, he would think of her constant suffering that he could have ended, just as those children whose eyes he had taken. If he killed her, later he would think of her again, wondering if there could have been good in her that he had simply misinterpreted. While he was here and she was with him, looking at him with those large pleading eyes, he may as well have one mystery solved.
Had she aimed to save him? And if so, why?
Nathan edged around her, holding his hands up just above the water.
"I want to help you," he said motioning toward the net of hooks. He did not bother speaking slowly or carefully. He knew she understood. "Do you promise not to hurt me?"
Her eyes narrowed a bit – hurtfully? – but she began to nod. What was she saying in that gaze? Of course I would never hurt you, human. How could you even suggest it? Even so, he did not feel wrong for questioning her. But even stranger than that, he believed her.
He pressed through the water the last few feet until he reached her. His eyes roved across the strange restraint, looking for the best place to start. There didn't seem to be a place where it began or ended, but perhaps it was just too tangled. The twisting of her hair within it did not help him make a decision.
"It will have to be cut off," he said, letting her know he was about to pull the knife.
When it emerged in his hand, she flinched a bit. He watched her eyes a moment, making sure that his face was a nice distance from where her mouth could reach. After making up his mind that she was indeed as timid as she looked, he set to work.
The knife sliced the net into pieces. He was careful around the hooks, seeing that some of them dangled loosely while others had pushed into her skin – some even pushing back out. The wounds were not terribly deep but he could not imagine that they were pleasant. Nathan understood how it worked now. Her own movements were what urged the hooks into her. It was punishment, but each insertion was her own fault.
He freed strands of hair from the net as she watched him intently. He wanted to walk away.
"I don't know why I'm doing this," he admitted, but immediately thought better of it. "I take that back; I do know why. It just seems like an unfair trade. Your friends ate the rest of the crew, and here I am doing favors for you."
The sea nymph searched his face. He didn't look at her, but even so, it made him feel a bit uncomfortable.
"You don't have to…"
"Yes, I do," he snapped back at her.
In his frustration with all that had happened, he began to lose care with the net. She gasped when an unfriendly tug jerked the hooks. He took his hands away immediately in order to calm himself. He offered no apology, and after a moment, started again.
"You don't look like those others I saw. Why? Or is it just my eyes playing tricks on me?"
He almost didn't expect her to answer him. He didn't think she could be straight with him concerning that.
He stopped his work. Had she just said imperfect? Nathan knew there was a very disgusted and bewildered look on his face, but he could not shut it down. As a human, he could not comprehend. He hardly had the ability to question that notion, but he knew it had to be done.
"What does that mean?"
She sighed, and he suddenly remembered that she was in pain. He carefully removed a hook from her shoulder.
"I don't look how I'm supposed to."
He sent her a glance, promising that her statement was obvious. She realized it with widening eyes and tried again.
"Our ways of reproducing are not what they once were. The males died out years ago and so we – they – began to use human males as a means to impregnate themselves. It works, but occasionally an imperfect is born. We are too much like humans to be acceptable. It is shameful that our tongues can speak both languages."
He listened to her words, seeing that they fit with what he had seen the night before. But over all else, there was one thing he needed to know.
"Were you going to eat me?" he asked, nearly interrupting her.
She stared deep into the dark of his eyes. What was that in her blue-green gaze? Sadness? Longing? Disappointment?
"Why would I?" she asked with genuine innocence. "You look like me."
After hearing that, he worked on in silence for a long while until he had removed the net. He gingerly removed every hook he saw, placing them on the surface of the rock nearby. When he was done with that, he twisted her a bit to unbind her hands.
She did not make mention of any pain, but after he had freed her arms, she massaged the red area of her wrists.
"There," he said, putting the knife away.
Overcome with emotion, the creature flung her arms around his neck. Within his mind, thousands of signals set off, each one warning him to get away from her, but how often did he listen to those things? As disgusted as he felt about what she was, he was still very awed by her beauty. Was it truly just some false and enchanted allure? If what she said was true, this flesh he saw was her true and only appearance. Cautiously, he placed a lustful hand on her back, holding her against him, lowering his head to her shoulder until his lips touched it.
Her head was resting in the crook of his neck with her soft lips against his throat, and he might have thought little of it, but an image began to reveal itself in his mind. While he held her there so carelessly, she could have opened her mouth and sank her blunt teeth into his vein, stealing his life. Nathan would not let that happen to him. It was only after that vision that he pushed her away. He removed her arms from his shoulders and stepped back. Looking to her, he could see that her eyes were filled with salty tears while her lips smiled shortly at him.
She was so strange. He could not understand her at all. But that was, perhaps, only because she was a woman.
"What's wrong?" he asked before he could stop himself – before he could convince himself that he didn't care.
"No one's ever been so kind to me," she confessed.
He could think of nothing to say to that. Perhaps there wasn't anything he could have said. After a moment of staring into her strange, glittering eyes, he resolved to let her go. She had saved him, and he had helped her in this way. He could be free of her now.
"We're even," he said, as if expecting her to swim away after he'd granted it. She did not.
Her disagreement shocked him, but before he had time to question it, she explained.
"I'm going to help you get off this island. I know humans do not live like this. They live in full groups. You need to get back to the other humans."
The young pirate was very surprised, admitting to himself that he'd not even thought of asking her to help him further. His eyes lit with hope. Was it possible? Could she get him back to the mainland?
"My people have prayed to the sea and she will toss the waves again in three days. The feedings are not over. Within the storm, any ship that drifts near here will be in danger of wrecking. That will increase your stay on the island. I will come back in a while and lure a ship here to save you."
He stared at her incredulously, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Why would you do that for me?"
In response, she smiled sweetly, raising her weak fingers to his face. She touched the end of his nose, sliding down to waver over his lips before gliding easily down his chin. He sighed for the sensation.
"I will return between now and then," she whispered. "When I am able."
When he said nothing more, she slipped down into the water and quickly vanished into the greater depths. Nathan stood rooted to the spot, chilled as the wind blew against him. There was no more anger left in him for the one who had just left him. In fact, he felt much lighter because he believed the words she had said. He didn't know why he believed her, but she had seemed so pure that he could not help it. Those discoveries had changed her. She was no longer a monster in his mind.
He could have gone on about his own quest to find a ship, but suddenly he felt no need. He trusted her. He would wait.
Thaddeus Ellister was weary. As the crown prince, he'd always been involved in matters of state, but since his father's sudden illness, everything had been on his plate. It was not as if he did not care about his future position as king, but there were other things he wanted to take care of first – none of which had been dealt with yet.
He remembered the words of his council from just moments before.
"Another ship has wrecked off the coast. We're certain it was natural this time, but the people keep hearing of this and it upsets them. They want those creatures destroyed. And please keep in mind, your majesty: if we do not have the sea, we have nothing."
Did they not recall that his biggest concern was the sea? Did they not realize that, if it was possible, he would be out on a ship every moment, searching for those creatures he sought to thin? But he could not be everywhere at once. He did well to see to his own desires occasionally.
The attractive man walked straight and evenly through the elaborate, ocean-side palace. To anyone who might have looked on, he appeared as a man who could be moved by nothing. His eyes were green and serious. His fine jacket was impossibly straight. His hair was a sandy brown color, no strand out of place. He stepped past everything as if it did not impress him in the slightest, and most certainly, it did not. Thaddeus was a complicated man, and many of those who had watched him his entire life still did not understand him.
Thaddeus knew that there was only one who understood him, and he had not seen her in years.
His pace quickened slightly as he approached his rooms. There was sanctity there – the only bit he had. Later, there would be a meeting with his sickly father. Then dinner with his mother. More council dealing with trade. Yes, he needed rest. He needed to be cleansed.
He opened the doors and locked them once inside. Thaddeus peeled off his clothing as he moved past the lavish interior, ignoring it entirely. He unfastened his belt, passing through a second doorway. A large pool was set in the floor there, crafted to his liking with marble tiles. The water was still and clear therein, and by the time he'd dropped the last bit of his clothing, he was at the edge.
The crown prince stepped down into the water, feeling the cold between his toes. It rose up onto his legs, urging his pores to tighten. While to most the sensation was unpleasant, for Thaddeus, it brought on a strong arousal. He moved down into the pool until it had risen above his chest. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
After a moment, he felt a stirring motion in the water. Soon following, hands.
Two pairs of hands caressed his legs, climbing up his form. He could feel shapely warmth pressed against his chest and back. There was breath in his ear; hungry lips against his neck. Brushing his legs were two long, slick fishtails. He breathed deeper at the feel of it.
These beautiful ones were his only pleasure, but the two of them alone were only satisfactory. He needed more. To separate the wicked from the desirable. That was his purpose in dealing with the sea. He cared very little for those wrecked ships and the men upon them.
"I have business shortly," he said quietly. "Work swiftly. Be thorough."
His sea nymph lovers were nameless. They said nothing. They were not allowed to speak to him. But why would they need to? Their lusts were as strong as his own, and when he came to them, they wanted nothing less that what was expected.
Together, they tended to his body.